Analysis: Four part-time Xfinity Series drivers deserving of regular rides in 2022

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series was a melting pot of talent in 2021. It featured drivers from different corners of auto racing in equipment of varying competitive levels. In some cases, these drivers offered mere glimpses of what they could do with more starts under their belts.

One of the biggest yearlong stories was Ty Gibbs establishing himself as a consistent win threat despite making just 18 starts. He’ll contend for the series championship in 2022. With other part-timers making a dent in their cameo appearances, he won’t be alone in this quest. Four other drivers have statistical strengths that require more cultivating.

Josh Berry, Santino Ferrucci, Preston Pardus and Sage Karam also made the most of part-time Xfinity Series opportunities this season. Positives for each of them can be quantified and another year with more frequent appearances could lead to bigger and better things.

Josh Berry

It seems everyone who encounters Berry comes away smitten. It’s one way to explain his employment, albeit some of it temporary, with seven different teams across NASCAR’s three national series this season. He earned return calls after short-notice substitutions in two instances — for Spire Motorsports in the Cup Series and filling in for injured JR Motorsports stable mate Michael Annett.

But beyond an endearing personality is a driver who proved himself as a standout long-run passer. His +5.44% surplus passing value ranked in the 99th percentile of a group containing the 12 most statistically productive Xfinity Series talents. Berry also was a restarter on par with Gibbs and AJ Allmendinger, two drivers who combined for nine wins this season:

Berry’s year contained some discernible weaknesses, though most weren’t entirely his doing. His average running position after one competitive lap (or initial position, as noted on the above graph) was around 19th, the worst initial position of this group. That’s in part due to a kink of the metric qualifying procedure utilized in 2021. If he wasn’t in a specific car the week prior, he’d start toward the rear of the field.

This made track position a consistent need for Berry. He satisfied some of the need with his long-run passing — he secured a pass differential 203 positions better than his statistical expectation. A full-time effort for JR Motorsports will eliminate this hurdle altogether while also supplying him a more consistent brand of speed and, potentially, a pit crew with a faster median four-tire box time (noted as “YF Pit Defense”), both areas for concern in his 22-race piecemeal campaign.

One other area he’ll have to address is his crashing. Wrecking or spinning 0.41 times per race this year, his crash rate fared as one of the worst of this talented group, unbecoming of a driver with championship aspirations.

Certainly, those aspirations are legitimate as the majority of his peripheral stats indicate. But given his age — he turned 31 last month — what he’s able to do right now in the Xfinity Series might not be indicative of future growth. His formative years were spent competing for championships in Late Model stock cars while a slew of younger drivers became winners, champions or top-tier producers in the Cup Series. He’s more than a few steps behind his would-be competition, if he ever reaches NASCAR’s top level on regular basis.

But for Berry, the Xfinity Series provides permanence in 2022 and that’s more than what most former part-timers ever receive. He has the quantifiable chops to make the most of this opportunity and should seriously contend for the series championship in a ride capable of such success.

Santino Ferrucci

The Connecticut-born 23-year-old with experience competing in IndyCar and Formula 2 says NASCAR was always where he wanted to end up. After his stock car debut this year, a pleasant surprise for Sam Hunt Racing in the Xfinity Series middle tier, it seems his fit with the fendered form of auto racing is natural.

Among drivers with six or more starts, Ferrucci’s 1.536 Production in Equal Equipment Rating ranked 13th, just ahead of Berry, Brett Moffitt, Ty Dillon and Harrison Burton. Ferrucci also flashed signs of potential short-run stardom. Among drivers with at least six restart attempts from inside the first seven rows, only Kyle Busch submitted a better position retention rate than Ferrucci’s 83.33% clip, the entirety of which came on choose-rule tracks.

And he did it all without a single practice lap.

“It’s really hard to do this without any track time,” Ferrucci told The Associated Press in July. “Every single one of my laps in NASCAR has been race laps.”

Nevertheless, Ferrucci demonstrated some tantalizing potential. In a revolving-door ride — seven different drivers took two or more turns behind the wheel of the Andrew Abbott-led car — his average best lap ranking of 18.0 was the second fastest of the group. That trailed only John Hunter Nemechek (11.5), a 13-time winner in NASCAR’s national levels. Of the seven drivers, Ferrucci was the lone NASCAR neophyte in advance of this season.

While no concrete plans are in place for 2022, both driver and team have publicly stated their desires for a continued pairing.

Preston Pardus

Having championship bona fides at the grassroots levels of racing and a father who once competed in the Cup Series tends to work out well in a sport that’s far from a straightforward meritocracy. But Pardus, son of Dan, has yet to benefit from this seemingly tried-and-true path.

A national title-winner in the SCCA, the 24-year-old Pardus pounced on the Xfinity Series’ robust road course schedule in 2021 and took advantage given the resources at his disposal. Driving for independent owner Mario Gosselin, Pardus placed seventh on the Charlotte Roval, 14th at COTA and 16th at Road America before finishing 18th, and on the lead lap, in his maiden oval start at Martinsville.

Dating back to his efforts in 2020, which included an eighth-place finish at Road America, Pardus has secured five of the six best finishes for a team led by veteran crew chief Tony Furr.

Such result-getting is present in his PEER, a 1.625 mark ranked 10th and just below the 1.636 of Noah Gragson. Amazingly, Pardus pulled this off despite crashing once every two races and producing negative surplus passing values on the tracks he visited.

Whether he’s able to duplicate the rating — or expand on it, if he chooses to add ovals to next year’s curriculum — is a question worth asking. A positive answer could yield future opportunities and unearth a quality driver who developed outside of NASCAR’s traditional prospect ladder system.

Sage Karam

As a lark, Jordan Anderson Racing entered Karam, a part-time IndyCar driver and 2013 Indy Lights champion, into August’s race at Indianapolis. The result wasn’t ideal — he finished 26th after pulling off of the track with an electrical issue three laps from the finish — but his performance led to more chances.

Once hailed as “the new face of IndyCar racing” by The New York Times, the 26-year-old Karam competed in three more Xfinity Series races, two of them on ovals. He turned in a 52.16% adjusted pass efficiency (a top-20 clip) and ended his limited run with a pass differential nine spots beyond his statistical expectation. His 50% position retention rate across six non-preferred groove restarts was above average within the series, besting rates by Gragson, Burton and series champion Daniel Hemric.

To the team’s credit, Karam was slotted into two events containing practice sessions in the buildup, but to get up to speed in stock cars, more seat time will be required. Such a notion could result in a fun addition to the Xfinity Series and more permanent housing for a driver who’s had just two full seasons of racing across all motorsport disciplines in the last eight years.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.

 

 

Alex Bowman to miss Charlotte Roval race

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Alex Bowman announced Tuesday night on social media that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Roval.

Bowman said on social media: “I am continuing to make strides in my recovery to make sure I can return to competition at 100%.”

This will be the second consecutive race he will have missed because of concussion-like symptoms after his crash at Texas Motor Speedway.

Noah Gragson will drive the No. 48 car this weekend for Bowman.

“Alex’s health is our first priority,” said Jeff Andrews, president and general manager of Hendrick Motorsports, in a statement. “We’re focused on supporting his recovery and seeing him back in his race car when the time is right. Alex has a long career ahead of him, so we will invest the necessary time and take our guidance from medical experts. We’re putting no pressure on him to return before he’s 100% ready.”

Bowman will be one of the four drivers eliminated from title contention Sunday.

Also Tuesday, Cody Ware announced that he will sit out this weekend’s Cup race at the Charlotte Roval, as he continues to recover from the ankle injury he suffered at Texas.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Chase Elliott leaps to the front

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A slick late-race move by Chase Elliott carried him to Victory Lane Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — and back to the top of the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Elliott is the only driver with five victories this season. No one else in the playoffs has more than two (Tyler Reddick, eliminated from the championship hunt, has won three times).

Elliott, already qualified for the Round of 8 with his Talladega win, will be among the favorites in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Here’s how the rankings look approaching the end of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Chase Elliott (No. 3 last week) — Elliott’s power move to win at Talladega was quite impressive and gave him four top-five finishes in the past 10 races. Clearly, he has re-established himself as the championship favorite.

2. Denny Hamlin (No. 1 last week) — Hamlin drops a spot despite a strong run (20 laps led and finishing fifth) at Talladega. Count him in the hunt for an elusive first championship.

3. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Blaney simply will not go away despite continuing as the playoffs’ only winless driver (not including the Texas All-Star Race). He was victimized by Chase Elliott on Sunday at Talladega, finishing .046 seconds short of victory and a push into the next round.

4. Kyle Larson (No. 2 last week) — Superspeedway racing generally is not Larson’s strong point. He finished 18th Sunday despite leading eight laps and being in the front group much of the day.

5. Joey Logano (No. 4 last week) — Logano had an unusually poor performance at Talladega. He was involved in an early-race accident and struggled much of the rest of the day, finishing 27th.

MORE: Elliott celebrates, Logano laments

6. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain tied Aric Almirola for most laps led (36) at Talladega and has been consistent as of late with three finishes of seventh or better in the past four races.

7. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron’s worst news last week came off the track as he was penalized by NASCAR for dumping Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas. He finished 12th at Talladega.

8. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe is quietly making the case that he could make the Round of 8 and challenge for the title.

MORE: Winners and losers at Talladega

9. Daniel Suarez (unranked last week) — Suarez maneuvered through the Talladega draft with style and came home eighth. He has three top 10s in the past seven races.

10. Christopher Bell (No. 6 last week) — Bell had a rough day at Talladega and will be looking to Sunday’s race at the Roval for redemption.

Dropped out: Tyler Reddick (No. 10 last week).